Mingis on Tech: Coding for Alexa

To most users, Alexa is the helpful voice in the Echo and Echo Dot. But with a little coding, it can be made to do much more than play music, turn on the lights or tell you the weather.

Credit: Computerworld

Alexa, the helpful assistant best known as the voice of Amazon Echo and Echo Dot devices, offers a range of "skills" right out of the box. It can perform a variety of tasks such as looking up information, setting a timer, playing music, activating smart home devices and more.

But what happens if there's a certain skill you want that Alexa doesn't do?

You can do what Sharon Machlis did and code your own.

Machlis, IDG's director of editorial analytics and data, explained to Computerworld Executive Editor Ken Mingis why you might want to develop your own skill and detailed some of the things to keep in mind if you decide to do so. 

While Amazon already offers a number of skills templates, it's useful to know how to modify those in ways that personalize the tasks Alexa can tackle. It's something that can be used not only at home, but in the office or for more public-facing needs. (She  developed a calendar of events for the city of Framingham, Mass., for example.)

As Machlis explains it, an Alexa skill involves a front-end – the query being asked – and a back-end, which involves the coding necessary to respond appropriately to the request. (Coding is done with Amazon's developer console.) And that back-end has to take into account the various ways people might be asking for information.

It also has to be hosted somewhere, either on AWS Lambda or pretty much any HTTPS web service. And while you don't have to be a hard-core coder to make your own skill, it helps to have some basic knowledge.

Machlis offers more details in our podcast.

For the audio-only version, click play (or catch up on all earlier episodes) below. Or you can find us on iTunes, where you can download each episode and listen at your leisure.

Happy listening, and please, send feedback or suggestions for future topics to us. We'd love to hear from you.

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